UPDATED: Flathead Running Mates on Most GOP Governor Tickets

By Beacon Staff

This story has been updated following Chuck Baldwin’s Feb. 13 announcement that he is withdrawing from the race. There are now four gubernatorial candidates instead of five who have running mates with Flathead Valley ties.

Four out of the seven Republican candidates vying for the governor’s office have a running mate with Flathead Valley ties, giving further credence to the region’s reputation as one of Montana’s most important conservative strongholds.

Frontrunner Rick Hill is running with state Sen. Jon Sonju of Kalispell; Neil Livingstone chose state Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish; Corey Stapleton recently named former state legislator Bob Keenan of Bigfork; and Ken Miller picked Public Service Commissioner Bill Gallagher, formerly of Polson.

Bob Fanning picked Flathead pastor Chuck Baldwin as his running mate but Baldwin announced on Feb. 13 that he is withdrawing from the race, citing lack of funding and campaign organization.

Gallagher lives in Helena today, but in the past he has lived and owned businesses in Polson, forming relationships throughout the Flathead that he says are still strong. He also owns a second house in Plains and his Public Service Commission district encompasses Flathead County.

“When I get up here, it feels like I’m coming home,” Gallagher said during a recent Kalispell interview.

Gallagher said he understands the candidates’ desire to select running mates who have footholds in the greater Flathead Valley, which has a large population of voting Republicans. After winning the 2010 election for the Public Service Commission District 5 seat, which represents a region stretching from Lewis and Clark County to Flathead County, Gallagher recalls being asked a question: “How did you win?”

“You don’t ignore the Flathead,” he answered.

None of the four gubernatorial candidates is from farther west than Helena, perhaps making a western Montana running mate all that more desirable. The other two Republican hopefuls are Choteau County Commissioner Jim O’Hara, who named former Montana Highway Patrol trooper Scott Swingley his lieutenant governor, and former Montana Transportation Director Jim Lynch of Kalispell. Lynch hasn’t announced a running mate.

The Republican field was previously as large as nine. In January, Helena real estate investor Drew Turiano announced he was dropping out of the race and instead running for Montana secretary of state. Then in late January, state Sen. Jeff Essmann of Billings dropped out as well.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, is prevented from a running for reelection because of term limits.

The Republican primary is June 5. The winner will take on the winner of the Democratic primary, which features heavy favorite Steve Bullock, currently the state’s attorney general, and state Sen. Larry Jent of Bozeman. Hill has been leading by a healthy margin in Republican primary polls over second-place Miller, though it remains to be seen what the reduced field could mean for polling.

When Hill announced Sonju as his running mate in mid-January, he rattled off a list of reasons that had more to do with Sonju’s business and legislative experience than geography. But in an interview afterward, Hill acknowledged the importance of a choice that appeals to the Flathead. Gallagher called Hill’s selection of Sonju “brilliant.”

A common theme throughout the Republican primary has been an often-repeated promise of the lieutenant governor playing a significant role once in office – more than simply a “ribbon cutter.” Given that promise, if a Republican were to win the election, the odds are in favor of the Flathead being well represented in the governor’s office.